It's afternoon, the temperature is hovering around 40 degrees C. Our car, carrying the ESPN team of writer and video crew, travels down a country road flanked by sparse vegetation when suddenly a series of large dark mounds looms on the horizon. All over the mounds are sari-clad women sitting on their haunches, rolling disc-shaped magnets in almost rhythmic movements. When the magnetic surface is covered with granular deposits, they empty it into gunny bags tied around their waists.
They are collecting slag, or metal waste, to sell on to the scrap dealer. A kilogram of slag can fetch a maximum of Rs 15 approximately 20 cents , depending on the quality; it could take long, arduous hours under the sun for daily earnings to even touch Rs But Odisha is one of the poorest Indian states, with one-third of its population living in poverty despite its abundant natural resources and sustained political stability.
So a relatively steady daily earning is a lifeline for a family with little other income. Even though there were so many of them working together at the same time, there was enough work for all. Her first earning as a nine-year-old was a soiled rupee note. It's what the scrap dealer paid her in exchange for two kilos of slag, several hours of back-breaking work that left her with sore and scarred hands. Setting out through windswept, shuttered stretches of Bhubaneswar, the capital city of Odisha, a little before dawn, we've now clocked over km on the road.
The state's capital city, with its high-rises and shopping malls, seems a world away; here, there are a few huts scattered on either side of what passes for a road. Approaching Raisuan, in Kendujhar district , we spot a gaggle of anxious faces.
Strains of 'Sagundaram, sagundaram' 'welcome' in the native tribal language of Santhali , accompanied by drumbeats, grow from faint to persistent and our doubts dissipate.
As we slow down at the corner, Hupi Majhi recognizes the familiar faces and leaps out of the car into the waiting crowd. She hasn't been home in months. It's also her first visit to her village since the Asian Sevens in Laos, where the Indian senior women's rugby side came second in February last year.
Six of the 12 girls in the team were from Odisha, four of them tribals. Hupi had scored the most tries for India, who ended up winning five out of their six matches in the seven-nation tournament. Men riding in twos on motorcycles and raising loud, celebratory slogans head the victory parade, from Raisuan to Hupi's home in Dhatika village, little over a kilometre away.
Turning a bend leading to Hupi's home, we complete the final odd metres by foot. First up, doho johar: The traditional washing of guests' feet in a Santhali gesture of welcome. Hupi has visited home fewer than five times since she moved to Bhubaneswar more than a decade ago, so the ritual is not entirely unwarranted.
She's the first from her village to play a sport at the international level and it's a proud moment for all of us. I have never seen anything like this ever before," Hupi says, her voice choking. It feels like a dream. All three belong to the Santhal community of tribals. Odisha is home to 62 tribes, who form 23 per cent of the state's total population.
Its Scheduled Tribes speak 72 tongues. The Santhals, in fact, are only one among four tribes -- Kui Lipi, Ho and Sora are the others - to have a written script, one that has borrowed heavily from Bengali, Odia, Devanagari and, in the case of those who've converted to Christianity, Roman too. Hupi's parents Balaram and Gumi Hembram, who sell vegetables grown on the tiny plot of land adjacent to their house, sit on either side of her.
They know their daughter plays a sport but they don't know that she's a winger, a position in rugby defined by speed and elusive skills, or has featured in four tournaments in the senior national side.
As they talk, Hupi translates from Santhali to Hindi. Her brother-in-law Shivshankar persuaded Hupi's parents to allow her to move to Bhubaneswar for studies and, after initial resistance, they eventually relented. I never thought I could have a career or see the world. She was terrified and had an overpowering urge to flee from everything that was new and intimidating.
Meera white jersey, centre , the team's fly-half who orchestrates the tactical game, had the third highest number of conversions at the Asian Rugby Sevens in Laos last year.
Rugby India Much like Hupi, Meera's trek to a life in sport has been plagued with challenges, perhaps greater in magnitude.
Given away to an orphan home in Kendujhar, along with two of her siblings, she spent her early childhood years listening for the faintest creak of its rust-eaten gate. It was tough for our father, a daily wager, to raise five children alone, so he left three of us in an orphan home," Meera says. She hoped the gate would swing open, and her father would stride in smiling, telling them that he wanted to take them home.
The wait lasted four years. Outside the orphanage, a life she'd never imagined awaited her. Our drive to Meera's house in Daitari, Bamnipal, is through a brown-green landscape.
At one point there's a tall, red flagpole-like structure -- a memorial to 12 tribals killed during the agitation against land acquisition for the Tata Steel project in Vegetation is sparse, and the only human habitation is thatched kiosks selling handia, the local beer made from fermented rice.
The drink, a staple for tribals, draws its name largely from handi, or earthen pot which holds the rice for fermentation, and is particularly a favourite among the Santhal and Munda tribes.
Clusters of sal trees or what is also called sarjom, show up along the way; the trees are in bloom and covered in fresh cream-coloured flowers.
Meera tells us how she would wear the heavenly-scented sal flowers on her hair and pined for its soft, fleshy fruits even after she moved to Bhubaneswar. Then, as we near the house, her demeanour changes; the last time she visited home, in December , was after her father's death. Away playing a tournament in Sri Lanka then, she couldn't reach in time to see him one final time or comfort her brother while he lit the funeral pyre.
On reaching, we're ushered into Meera's low, thatch-roofed two-room house by her elder brother Kanucharan with hands folded in a greeting. The mud-floor room we enter is largely empty but for a charpoy a string bed commonly used in rural India and, on shelves, a few of Meera's trophies.
We then head for the slag heap, 15 minutes away. A few look up, their hands still in motion, before burying themselves in work again. It's the latter, we realize soon enough. I've completed college and now I'm pursuing a two-year Physical Education course in Bhubaneswar. It's tough, you know, to play a sport if you have no job or money," says Meera. Hupi nods, conveying similar doubts. She has recently branched out to a fresh career path, in addition to her role as a player.
She's completed a Level 1 referees' training course and is now part of Rugby India's referees' panel. It motivates these girls to continue playing with the assurance that they have a good potential awaiting them in future. The final questions wrapped up, Hupi knows it's time for us to take leave of her village. Skimming through the gathering, her eyes turn hopeful. As we near Meera's ancestral village of Gopalpur in Khaliamenta, the road disappears and in its place lies a grey, muddy slush, caved in at several parts.
Dhotis rolled up to their knees, two men ahead of us navigate their way through it barefooted with practised ease, the soot-like mud caking their legs. To our right, a man tugged at the handlebar of his cycle, its rear wheel spinning, trying to nudge it out of the muck. It's part of their many everyday struggles. Power supply is irregular and even for drinking water people have to travel far since there are no water bodies nearby," says Kanucharan, as our vehicle sways furiously from side to side, the wheels struggling in the mud.
At the village, the scene is starkly different. There's no grand welcome or hugs exchanged. Meera's extended family haven't seen her since she left their ancestral household with her father and siblings, as a toddler. They are just getting used to being around each other after a long time. Though they caught snippets of news of her choosing a different path than what girls in their household, neighbourhood and community traditionally have, they aren't entirely certain of the sport she plays.
Anticipating these doubts, Meera, who's carrying a rugby ball with her, presents it to the puzzled gathering. It's like nothing they've seen before but the pig-bladder-shaped object acts as the ice-breaker and gets them talking.
Meera can relate to their bewilderment. It's what she felt when rugby was first mentioned to her. It was back in , when the U boys' team from the Kalinga Institute of Social Sciences KISS , a free residential school for tribal kids in Bhubaneswar where both she and Hupi have been studying, returned to a rousing welcome with a big, glittering trophy and a bagful of tales of having boarded a plane, travelled to a foreign country and beaten bigger boys.
She knew something important had been accomplished but today she realizes it's what redefined rugby in Odisha, particularly for kids like her. It was the most unbelievable story: A group of tribal boys who had barely come to grips with a new sport participating in a nation invitational tournament in London and beating the rest of the field to return home champions.
There's no work hierarchy in the slag heaps, says Meera. Whatever is collected is sold off the same day to scrap dealers and it's the preferred employment avenue for the women and children of her village. Bhagyarathi Panda Rugby came to India in the early s and, unlike football or even cricket, was a sport played almost solely by the British, keeping the Indians out.
The hubs were Calcutta and Bombay as they were then called , where the expats played the game at their clubs -- Calcutta Football Club and Bombay Gymkhana -- or in their schools and colleges.
The Calcutta Cup, the trophy played for annually between the national teams of England and Scotland, references the game's influence and spread right across the Empire to its second city. Things moved slowly in independent India; the game remained largely confined to the metros and the elite clubs, played by the privileged and those with access to the unique equipment. It's only in the last three decades that the game has spread to the hinterland. The clipped accents and posh English have given way to vernacular languages and a more rooted Indian ethos.
Some of it, Indian actor and former rugby player Rahul Bose says, has to do with the invasion of English football into middle-class and affluent living rooms. So if there's a boy who's physical and liked to get into sport, he was now happy to pick football.
By , the number of children coached by TRT swelled to An inclusive, adaptable and non-contact version of the sport, tag rugby is used to warm kids to the idea of tearing down barriers and coming together in participation. Tackles are made by tagging opponents, forcing them to pass and preventing them from scoring.
Since they are engaged in a broad range of physical tasks on a daily basis, Hansford adds, tribal children have enhanced core motor skills and hand-eye coordination that help in the sport. And that's when rugby became an unlikely vehicle for women's emancipation.